War-Zone insurance: getting covered for war- and terrorism-related accidents.

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April 22 2011 1:27 PM

War-Zone Insurance

Getting covered for war- and terrorism-related accidents.

Tim Hetherington. Click image to expand.
Tim Hetherington

Photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed Wednesday during an attack by Moammar Gaddafi's forces against rebels in Misurata, Libya. Two other foreign journalists were injured during the same attack. For the benefit of their readers and viewers, reporters and photographers routinely place themselves in some of the world's most dangerous situations. Can they get insurance?

Yes. Major publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post typically provide or arrange medical and life insurance for their employees in high-risk regions. Freelance journalists can buy similar, if pricier, plans through underwriters and brokers specializing in war-zone insurance, which explicitly include coverage for war- and terrorism-related accidents. The cost of such policies depend largely on the insured's age and destination in addition to the type of coverage he's buying—medical, disability, emergency evacuation, life, or a combination of these options.

Four-weeks of "medical and assistance" coverage in Libya costs around $600 through  Escapade Insurances, a Quebec-based broker that has  partnered with Reporters Without Borders  to insure its members. That plan covers 100 percent of the cost of medical care and involuntary repatriation. (If you're shot and the military evacuates you for an emergency surgery, your costs are covered. If you're flying home early to see family, they aren't.) You can add an "accidental death and dismemberment" benefit for $1.92 per $1,000 insured, up to a little more than $314,000. The California-based  Petersen International Underwriters, which claims it has underwritten thousands of insurance policies for journalists going to war zones, says that its accidental-death coverage costs around $500 for weeklong embedding with troops in Afghanistan for a $500,000 payout.

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It's unclear what fraction of freelance journalists opt for insurance when they work in war zones, but forgoing coverage for financial reasons is not uncommon. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that a "high number of journalists from Africa, Latin America, and Asia," where this type of insurance is unavailable or prohibitively expensive, go uncovered.

Much as financial institutions classify municipal bonds based on their risk of default, war-zone insurers group countries and regions based on policyholders' risk of death or injury there. The precise groupings vary by underwriter and broker, but Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Congo, Somalia, and now Libya typically dominate the highest-risk tranche. Accordingly, insurance for reporting trips to these countries cost the most.

Although war-zone insurers rarely care about pre-existing conditions, and although they'll generally underwrite policies for any country on the map, they won't cover everything. Most won't pay for damages to professional equipment such as cameras. Since the best-case scenario with insurance is never needing to use it, organizations such as  Reporters Without Borders  and the Rory Peck Trust  provide journalists with safety training and emergency hotlines and let them borrow "PRESS"-emblazoned bulletproof vests and helmets.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Samuel Normand of Escapade Insurances, Bane and Kurt Petersen of Petersen International Underwriters, and Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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